‘A consolation prize’: Losing hope for Trump, allies focus on a final victory

‘A consolation prize’: Losing hope for Trump, allies focus on a final victoryOctober 13, 2020

As news of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death rippled across Washington on the evening of Sept. 18, some of President Donald Trump’s conservative allies likened the sudden Supreme Court vacancy to an eleventh-hour bailout.

Besieged by slipping poll numbers and new accusations that he misled Americans about the dangers of Covid-19, Trump — and his closest aides and allies — saw a Republican-led confirmation fight as a welcome detour to galvanize his base in the final month before Election Day.

But a month later, as Senate Republicans begin the process of confirming Amy Coney Barrett as Ginsburg’s replacement, a growing number of conservatives involved in the process believe the last-minute judicial appointment can no longer save Trump — and they are adjusting their plans accordingly. As the president returns to the campaign trail this week after his own bout with Covid-19, many of the conservative groups that have spent months buttressing his 2020 apparatus and amplifying his criticism of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden instead have their eyes trained on Barrett’s prospects in Washington.

Conservatives who once considered Trump’s success in the Nov. 3 election paramount to their goal of dismantling social progressivism have quietly shifted their focus to the lightning-fast Supreme Court confirmation fight. In Barrett, a 48-year-old Catholic mother of seven and protégé of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, the president’s traditionalist supporters see an easier short-term path to building a bulwark against the cultural shifts they oppose, and one that’s more likely to yield long-term results.

“It’s just more doable,” said one conservative policy advocate closely involved in Barrett’s confirmation process. “I don’t think Trump is sunk quite yet but his reelection is certainly not a lock, whereas with Barrett I would be really surprised if she doesn’t get through.”

“People are a little bit fatalistic,” the official added, referring to the current 2020 map for Trump and down-ballot Republican candidates. “Whatever happens, happens. We’ve just got to focus on Barrett right now.”

That Barrett’s confirmation is seen by some conservatives as the most important fight they can wage right now is no coincidence. In the time since Barrett was nominated to fill Ginsburg’s seat, Trump has faced bipartisan criticism for his bellicose performance in the first presidential debate, withdrawn from his second debate with Biden, spent three days in the hospital for a Covid-19 infection, urged Congress to pass another coronavirus aid package hours after he called for an end to negotiations and continued to flout basic pandemic protocols with crowded White House events — leaving Biden with his widest lead yet in national and swing-state polls.

One Republican close to the White House said surveys following the first presidential debate, many of which showed increasingly troublesome numbers for the president among women and senior voters, left him convinced that not only is Trump on track to lose the election, but he could drag a dozen or more GOP candidates down with him.

Another Trump ally who is involved in the president’s 2020 campaign described the past two weeks as “a slow-motion train wreck” and said Barrett’s anticipated confirmation will be “a consolation prize” for conservatives if Democrats regain control of both the White House and the Senate next month.

“I’ve been mapping out paths to 270 electoral votes almost every week since July and it’s gotten to a point now where it’s just a depressing exercise,” this person said, adding that cementing a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court “is more important than ever” given the president’s reelection prospects.

Several conservative groups that have worked to bolster Trump’s chances are planning to go all-in this week on the Supreme Court fight. Hours before Trump left Washington on Monday for his first out-of-state campaign rally following his coronavirus diagnosis, a coalition of 10 conservative organizations hosted a press conference to support Barrett’s confirmation. The livestreamed event included representatives from Heritage Action, the Judicial Crisis Network, Concerned Women for America, Americans for Prosperity, the Susan B. Anthony List and Club for Growth, among others, as well as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who both sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Some of these groups have bussed grassroots activists into Washington this week for rallies outside the U.S. Capitol or have directed their volunteer networks to flood Senate phone lines with support for Barrett — rerouting their attention to the confirmation battle and away from campaign trail duties.

“As part of our Project 2020 campaign outside the Beltway, we have an infrastructure that has already enabled us to contact 2 million households and 500,000 doors,” said Heritage Action press secretary Noah Weinrich. “Now we’re turning that out for SCOTUS and in D.C., we’re making sure [Barrett] is going to get confirmed.”

Some conservative activists said their work to generate enthusiasm around Barrett’s potential appointment to the high court serves multiple purposes and shouldn’t be viewed as a this-or-that situation. They said their efforts will nudge the confirmation process along, while also motivating conservative voters to turn out for Trump and Republican candidates next month.

March for Life Action president Tom McClusky, whose group will be driving people to pro-Barrett events in Washington this week, maintained that the enormous conservative push to promote Barrett’s confirmation does not come at the expense of assisting conservative candidates, including the president, who he believes will benefit from her confirmation. He described the Supreme Court fight as “more about messaging than about trying to win over Senate votes” because enough GOP senators already appear poised to support Barrett’s confirmation on the Senate floor later this month.

Similarly, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, suggested on a conference call Monday morning that Barrett’s confirmation could be advantageous to Trump and Pence as they near the end of their fight for reelection.

“I think she’s a tremendously qualified candidate who represents a lot of America, and I think that will probably have a political benefit,” Short said.

The president and his campaign have both promoted Barrett’s nomination and qualifications — in ads and speeches Trump has given at his signature campaign rallies — and plan to use this week to underscore the president’s transformation of the federal judiciary over the past four years. In remarks on Monday in Columbus, Ohio, Pence urged Judiciary Committee Democrats to ensure Barrett receives “a respectful and dignified” confirmation hearing.

“You all remember the attacks on Judge Barrett’s faith when she was confirmed to the Court of Appeals just two years ago. Democrats and their Hollywood friends have already started to attack Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Christian faith as well this time around,” Pence said.

But the Trump campaign has also cautioned conservative activists against abandoning the campaign fight in the final three weeks before Election Day to pour their resources into a battle that could be perceived as already won. Barring any new cases of Covid-19 in the upper chamber, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is widely expected to schedule a floor vote on Oct. 29 to confirm Barrett in what is almost certain to be a party-line vote.

“Why risk pissing away an election that will be won or lost at the margins for something we know is 99% guaranteed?” said the Trump campaign aide.

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